Forests in Central Asia are significant assets not only because they are a source of healthy nutrition and fresh vitamins available almost the whole year round, but also due to the unique fruit and nut genetic resources – the useful or potentially useful hereditary traits – contained in them. A high number of valuable wild fruit and nut trees available in the forests verify the fact that Central Asia is the centre of origin and diversity for many of species, such as apple, pear, peach, apricot, walnut, almond, mulberry and grapevine. Thus, the region is a home for highly diverse gene pools that are of great significance both locally and globally.
There are estimated 7000 plant species, 650 of which are endemic. About 400 are listed in the IUCN Red Data Book as endangered (see here). However, the ecotypes, forms or varieties (i.e. within species diversity) that are declining or disappearing have not been included in Red List assessments. The genetic resources that include major local varieties of fruit and nut species, as well as their wild relatives are in danger of disappearing in Central Asia for many of the same reasons as elsewhere – market forces driving farmers to limit their crops to a few marketable varieties, over-exploitation and degradation of natural ecosystems, climate change and associated biotic threats such as increased insect and disease attacks.
The global tendency of a growing gap between people and the environment results in loss of knowledge and interest in maintaining useful diversity. Thankfully, there are still people and communities that recognize the importance of wild and semi-domesticated fruit and nut species variety conservation and support initiatives to save this important genetic diversity for future generations.
In the context of existing threats, a four-year collaborative project on conservation for diversified and sustainable use of fruit tree genetic resources in Central Asia, initiated three years ago by Bioversity International and Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (former Centre de Recherche Public Gabriel Lippmann), in partnership with National Agricultural Research Organizations in three Central Asian countries, is aimed to improve the prospects for long-term food security and livelihoods for farmers in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan by generating and disseminating knowledge of characteristics important for adaptation and nutrition, their patterns of genetic diversity and effective conservation of fruit and nut tree species in the targeted countries. This initiative is made possible with a grant from the Government of Luxembourg.
Towards the project objectives, the project implementation team organized field trips in order to gather samples of leaves and fruits from walnut, apple and apricot trees in wild populations and home gardens in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. As a result, 18950 samples of leaves and 630 samples of fruits were collected and sent to Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) to conduct lab analysis of genetic diversity of theses species with the use of molecular markers (leaves) and analysis of health promoting nutritious compounds of fruits and nuts.
In order to demonstrate advanced methods of sustainable management of forest genetic resources, as well as to further strengthen cooperation and networking with key stakeholders, it was decided to establish Model Forest Farms in each of the target-study countries, with workshops organized in September 2014 and June 2015 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and in August 2015 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The workshops were attended by farmers associations and local women's councils, including high-level representatives of relevant ministries, scientific centres, partner institutions, universities, and international development agencies and programs, such as UNDP, WFP, GIZ, and FAO, where participants from forestry enterprises and representatives of local administrations had an opportunity to discuss current issues on conservation and sustainable use of forest tree genetic resources, and on establishing private enterprises for processing, marketing and certification of forest products.
Having a good understanding of the current environmental problems in the face of changing climate, human impact and disasters that may even destroy the valuable genetic resources, local authorities and key policy-makers in the forestry management expressed their commitment to support and contribute to the joint efforts on conservation of fruit and nut tree species and their genetic diversity. This diversity has a great importance not just for Central Asian countries themselves, but also globally. Other important issues raised during the workshops included project activities related to studying gender norms, such as involvement of women groups in fruit processing and establishing tree nurseries, and the information needs of farmers and rural youth in capacity building, aimed at increasing social responsibility for good functioning of ecosystem services.
The workshops were followed by the Annual Project Mid-term Meeting held September 14-16, 2015 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The meeting was attended by the representatives of National project implementation units and concerning Research organizations from the three Central Asian countries, experts from Bioversity International and LIST. During the meeting, the project implementation team reviewed the progress of activities in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Participants discussed the primary research results of studies on nutrient components and genetic diversity of apricot, walnut and apple trees, issues and potential opportunities for sustainable management of forest resources, plus a work plan for 2015-2016 and the development of a catalogue of the best forms of walnut for use by local farmers. The project specialists are also working on modelling of threat factors to wild populations of apple, apricot and walnut trees in three project countries.
Fruits and nuts are one of the most important sources for human health and nutrition. Research aimed at identification and conservations of diverse local varieties and wild forms of fruit trees for tolerance to drought, cold, pests and diseases, and for enhancing their nutritional values, can contribute to ensuring access to healthy and good-quality food and developing new economic opportunities for farmers. Farmers and other ecosystem users, in their turn, shall take the responsibility for maintaining healthy natural environments, ensuring conservation of these resources for generations to come.